The Perfect Heresy

by Stephen O’Shea

There are many terrible acts attributed to the Holy Catholic Church, only two of which besmirch the Papacy of Innocent III; the 4th Crusade, when the noble Christian lords of Western Europe were diverted from their goal of reclaiming Jerusalem from the Infidel by the prospect of sacking the golden jewel of Christendom, Byzantium… and the inauguration of the Albigensian crusade. The Crusades will doubtless get an airing at another time, but following my visit to Carcassonne(1) last year, a brief description of the terrible acts of this first crusade against a Christian country seems called for. It is a story of death, brutality, massacre, injustice, intolerance and totalitarianism.

The Cathars were heretics without a name. The word Cathar is a slang name, used by Catholics as an insult. The words Perfect, the elect, and Credentes for the followers are similarly lifted from the annals of the Inquisition. They called themselves Good men, Good Women or simply Good Christians. They were, undeniably, dualists who believed that there were two Gods – the good God of the spiritual world and the Bad God of the material world. Accordingly the material world was of no interest. They believed that you had to reach a spiritual enlightenment in order to finally reach the Good God. The Catholic Church with its sacraments, relics, rules and prohibitions was seen as, at best, an irrelevancy to the Cathars. Catholics had simply missed the point.(2)

The Catholic Church in Languedoc(3) was a sad mess at this time, the late 12th Century. Corrupt and worldly Archbishops and Bishops led a trail of usury, ignorance and malpractice right down to the average village priest, who probably had a few concubines and was woefully ignorant of the substance of Christianity. In comparison the wandering Perfect were ascetic, saintly men who ate no meat, were celibate, learned and lived as simple, wandering artisans. They had little difficulty winning adherents. But while dualism was rife throughout southern Europe there were special reasons for its success in the Occitan; as mentioned, the Church was feeble, but the feudal system had not thrown up the central organisation it had in Northern France and England. The ancient custom of dividing land equally between all children, men and women, had seen to that. Cathar Perfect could be women as well as men, and many of the leading lights of Catharism were noble women of limited, but independent means. The Occitan was a fragmented, independent state, not easily controlled or regulated.

And so the Dualist faith thrived. In many mountain villages Dualists were in the majority while in towns like Carcassonne or the region’s capital, Toulouse, Cathars and orthodox Christians (and indeed, Jews, remarkably enough) rubbed shoulders happily, each content to worship their own.

Sadly it could never last. Innocent III listened to the pleas from the Bishops of the region; he was an active Pope, someone anxious to leave his mark. The Cathar stain was an insult which he was determined to wipe out. The local nobility, Raymond Trancavel, Raymond VI of Toulouse and Raymond Roger of Foix were useless. They were hauled before the Bishops, promised to root out heresy in their lands, and did nothing. Time and again they promised action which they never took. A missionary expedition saw the Pope’s legate ridiculed for his high living by the simple Perfect. It was time to stop playing the nice guy.

Innocent chose the King of France to back the Crusade against the Heretics, supported by his personal legate, the foul Arnold Amaury. A massive army marched on the peaceful mountain region to the astonishment of the local inhabitants. Sieges were mounted, the huge attacking force against the local defensive positions. The town of Beziers was an early target, yet the result has lived to this day as an indictment of the Church. The men of Beziers screwed up quite badly; a small raid by hotheads allowed the Crusaders to breach the walls. Mayhem ensued, and the knights found the townsfolk crowded inside the church, men, women, children, babies, heretics and orthodox. What to do? The Pope’s man had the answer – ‘Kill them all – for God will know his own’. Perhaps 20,000 people were slaughtered at Beziers, an enormous number for the time, and the town itself was then raised. It was complete destruction of friend and foe alike. The shock waves crashed across the province.

Beziers was the first massacre, but not the last. At Carcassonne Raymond Roger went to negotiate peace terms with the French nobles, but was attacked and captured, at Bram the defeated men had their eyes gouged out, their noses and top lips sliced off, all except one, who led the crippled army across the wastelands to the Cathar centre of Cabaret, at Minerve 140 Perfect burned in one gigantic fire, at Lavaour ALL the southern nobles were hanged, regardless of faith, an astonishing flouting of the ‘rules’ of Medieval war, Geralda, the noble lady of the castle was cast down a well and stoned to death and 400 Cathars were burned, the biggest human bonfire in history. At Toulouse, Bishop Fulk persuaded the notables of the City to talk about ways of ending the violence, only to have them clamped in irons as soon as they left the defences of the City. Out of this orgy of death and destruction one man emerged, Simon de Montfort. A brave and brilliant leader, he repeated won battles that should have been lost and punished the community without mercy. By the end of a single year’s campaigning, he was the effective lord of Languedoc.

The pattern had been set. The war ebbed and flowed for decades. In 1213 an alliance of the southern nobles and King Pedro of Aragon produced, for the first time, an army that could hold the south against the Northern French. Victory would have changed the nature of Europe for ever, but the campaign was a catastrophic failure(4). At one point the local Lords had won back nearly all Simon De Montfort’s gains, but whenever it seems like the South had bought some breathing space, there was always another army of Crusaders backed by the Pope and the Capet Kings of France to sweep through the lands, burning and killing. But there was always Montsegur, the apparently impregnable cliff-top castle, the last refuge for the Perfect when all looked lost.(5)

This being the most Medieval of wars, it was about the feudal order as well as religion. While many of the soldiers did their 40 days for the indulgence, the leaders were there to annex land from the Southerners. Which is why the differences between Cathar and Catholic were largely brushed over by the southerners who were actually fighting a war against northern invaders. And that was essentially over by 1229, with Langudoc becoming part of the French Kingdom.

In the end the heresy was not defeated by war, but by the Papacy’s love of Roman Law, clerical efficiency and discipline. The Church authorities instituted The Inquisition in 1233 with the express intention of wiping out Heresy from Occitan. The Inquisitors, Dominican and Franciscan Friars, listed the names and contacts, they mapped the webs of family and friendship, and worked tirelessly and logically to track down and destroy every Heretic in the land. They invented the apparatus of the Police State, and it worked. In 1321 the last Cathar Perfect, William Belibaste, was burned in the heart of Corbieres and the Church must have thought, the Dualists would sink into history.

That they didn’t is purely because of the astonishing record keeping of the Church, allowing us to read the names and confessions of the people of Languedoc 700 years later.

Stephen O'Shea's book, The Perfect Heresy is by far the most accessible book on the Cathars I have read, and if you are interested in this topic, fully recommended. He keeps a clear distinction between the temporal and spiritual aspects of the dispute, gives excellent notes and full reading list.

While I have been reading this book I have worked on TV programmes on Lenin, Hitler and Pol Pot. There is little difference in any of these four stories. Dictators who use overwhelming force and totalitarian tactics to force a belief on those who chose otherwise; who are so arrogantly assured of their own superiority that others are not fit to live. It is profoundly distressing that at heart man has made so little progress in seven centuries. Still we believe that force can suppress opinions other than our own, that might is right and that we can force all people to a single way.

It is ironic that the total suppression of the Cathar Heresy all those years ago has led to the modern phenomena of Cathar Country, where thousand of visitor go every year to witness the places where the Good Christians opposed the Church with meekness and resignation.

(1) Carcassonne rapidly became the Crusading centre of the war, and home of the conquering Lords, from Simon de Montfort onwards. For hundreds of years it remained the centre of French royal power in Languedoc.

(2) It continues to astonish me that Cathars are considered Christian heretics; it seems to me that their religion is sufficiently different from Christianity to be considered entirely separate.

(3) Langudoc – literally Language of OC – where the word OC was used for yes as opposed to Oui.

(4) The alliance was defeated by Simon at the Battle of Muret

(5) Montsegur didn’t fall until 1243, after less than 100 fighting men kept an army of thousands at bay for almost a year. In surrender, 220 Perfect walked straight onto the pyres prepared for them.

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